When Chael Sonnen speaks, it seems as if his voice carries an invisible magnet. Heads turn in rapt attention. People listen. He can be annoying, and he knows it. The mixed martial artist is incredibly cerebral, and he knows that, too. He is provocative, temperamental, expressive, calculating and highly skilled at what he does. He has learned patience. Above it all, he is never afraid to speak his mind. When Sonnen talks, there is no filter. Words and thoughts flow out unrestrained.
Sonnen, 40, has seen his career span over 20 years. He has beaten some of the best and lost to some of the best. Regardless of how the MMA fanbase views him, he is hard to ignore. He has retired and unretired from the sport, and he has pissed off a slew of people along the way. Most recently it was Tito Ortiz, who gained as much attention with his cageside theatrics during Sonnen’s victory over Wanderlei Silva in the Bellator 180 main event at Madison Square Garden than the fight itself, throwing unfriendly finger gestures at the Team Quest mainstay, mixed with audible nasty remarks. Sonnen, who submitted to a choke from Ortiz months earlier, took it well. His response was to smirk.
“I didn’t understand that because you hear about poor sports, like Wanderlei pushed me after the fight, and I don’t like that, but I get it,” Sonnen said. “Being a poor sport when you lose is a real thing. Tito was being a dick, and he won. He was the winner. I’m the one who should be sore, and he still behaved like that. I was just confused. I thought it was bizarre. I didn’t understand it, but that’s Tito, man. Tito is a different guy. Tito is not my kind of guy. I never got an answer [as to why he antagonized me], and I never asked for one. There was no reason for us to have a conversation.
“I didn’t know whether he was seeking attention or he was just angry,” he added. “The guy is retired, and he’s irrelevant. He left the sport. If he was still in the sport, I would have gone after him or grabbed a water and thrown it at him. I would have done something to provoke him, but once you’re retired, you’re off limits as far as I’m concerned.”
Sonnen admits it has been a crazy, interesting ride and concedes that MMA’s evolution has exceeded his wildest imagination. His keen loquacious skills have led to broadcasting gigs with Spike and ESPN. He has become an in-demand personality when it comes to the mainstream media inquiring about the mixed martial arts world.
“I have such great memories. I’m just really glad that I stayed in it,” Sonnen told Sherdog.com. “The sport was a different thing when I started. There was no money. There was no fame. Nobody was even really after it. It was never really a part of the end game. I have opportunities now with announcing, but if you asked me when I was younger, ‘Hey Chael, what do you want to do with your life?’ I never once would have said I wanted to be an announcer, because it wasn’t even there. There was no one announcing. Opportunities have been created.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he added. “The way the industry has grown around the sport wasn’t even a thought back then. I’m curious to know where the leadership leads the sport in the next 10 or 20 years, which sounds like a long time, but it’s not. I have no regrets dedicating my time and my life to this sport and being a passionate fan.”
Tito Stole My Shoes
Sonnen’s hotel for Bellator 180 was right across the street from Madison Square Garden. Sonnen and his team decided to walk to the venue instead of hailing a cab to go 50 feet. He owns special shoes called Vibrams, which are designed to simulate running barefoot. Sonnen warmed up in them. He ran up to the ring in them to face Silva. There was one other relevant part to this tale: Sonnen had no other pair of shoes.
“I needed those shoes, not just for warming up and working out; I needed them for everything,” he said. “Those shoes were the only things I had to wear on my feet. I told my cornerman everything I just explained. I have one pair of shoes. I tell my corner people, ‘When I take these shoes off in the ring, make sure that I get these shoes back.’ The next day, one of my other cornermen is telling me during the fight, ‘Clayton [Hires] couldn’t find your shoes.’ Coach Clayton is like a father figure to me. He gets so nervous that when his boy is out there fighting, he gets fired up before a fight. He didn’t know where the shoes were. At the time, we couldn’t deal with it. They look over, and there is Tito pointing to them; and he’s laughing.
“My coaches thought Tito took the shoes, so they grabbed security,” Sonnen added. “They said, ‘Tito just stole our shoes. We don’t have time to deal with this. Can we just have the shoes back?’ Security told my guys they were sitting there all night and Tito hadn’t moved. They looked back at Tito, and he’s still looking at them and laughing. They thought, ‘Tito had the shoes, we’ll just get them back.’”
The head of Madison Square Garden security looked over the film, frame by frame, of Sonnen’s walk to the cage and noticed one of his cornermen just tossing the shoes up in the air as the team entered the cage area.
“My coach has no idea why he tossed the shoes; all he knows is that he did it,” Sonnen said with a laugh. “Fortunately, they found the shoes, but I never did find my DipYourCar.com T-shirt. Part of the contract was that I had to wear the shirt after the fight. I never got the shirt. To this day, DipYourCar.com didn’t want to pay the full amount for the deal, because I didn’t wear the shirt, and they’re right. I went and did the post-fight speech topless. I never saw that shirt again. I had to put on the sweaty, grimy shirt that I warmed up in to do the post-fight press conference. Just a lesson on fight day: Everyone is a little off, including the corner.”
Falling Through the Floor
One of Sonnen’s first fights came against Jason Miller on March 30, 2002 in a Hitman Fighting Productions event at the Cahuilla Creek Casino in Anza, California. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
“I remember it was in this tent set up on this reservation, and I remember my parents trying to get into the venue,” Sonnen said. “They were almost late, because getting people in was so slow. You had to get through a metal detector, and then there was a pat-down, and I’ll let you know why that was relevant. There was this whole big process getting into the place. Well, I hit Miller with a double-leg takedown, and we disappeared through the ring. My parents couldn’t even see us. The only thing holding us up was the tarp. The plywood had broken, and we fell through the cage.
“After the round was over, I went to my corner and I assumed that they were fixing the cage,” he added. “After several minutes, the promoter comes over and he sort of yells, ‘Don’t go in that area. We weren’t able to fix it.’ I didn’t even know where that area was. I didn’t pay a bit of attention, and it’s one of my first fights and I didn’t understand anything that went with it.”
Sonnen continued to compete, unaware of where the crater was in the ring. While they tried to repair the mat, the announcer asked the audience if anyone there had a knife.
“It’s funny, because after this big security check took place to get in, half the audience produced knives to fix this ring,” Sonnen said. “That was the worst venue I ever fought. The cage was black but wasn’t dipped in rubber or plastic, like most MMA cages. This was galvanized steel that was spray painted. Each time you had your back up against the fence, it was running into razors. That was my first time in an MMA cage ever. The MMA world was just forming then, and there weren’t any MMA gyms at that time. We barely used the term ‘MMA.’ It was, you boxed over here and wrestled over there and you got in the cage on Saturday and you figured it out.
“I didn’t know any different,” he added. “I didn’t know the cage was supposed to be dipped in plastic. That’s how new to it I was. I had a teammate, Curtis Crawford, who fought on that card and got sliced up against the cage. It sliced his finger, and he needed six stitches on the side of his finger. It was a low-budget event. It was a good experience.”
Looking back and considering the modern state athletic commissions and regulated weigh-ins that exist today, Sonnen sees it as an opportunity he should not have pursued.
“At the time, that’s what the MMA world was,” he said. “My first MMA amateur fight was seven minutes against Trevor Prangley, who went on to have a great career. I whipped the guy. At seven minutes, the promoter liked the fight so much he decided to let it keep going. This was 1999, and 7:34 in, I got put in something called a triangle choke hold, which no one knew what that was. We didn’t even argue or protest. We grabbed our stuff and walked out.”
Sonnen liked his experience with Bodog Fight, a Canada-based promotion that went out of business in 2008. During the time Sonnen fought for the company, he traveled to Costa Rica and Russia. In the MMA world, sometimes a fighter has to fight wherever the fights are.
“If you ever go to Russia to fight, cutting weight is always interesting because, just by culture, you’re climbing into a sauna completely naked; and they’re co-ed saunas,” Sonnen said. “If it were up to me, I’d prefer to never leave my house if I didn’t have to. Being in a co-ed sauna in Russia with naked men and women, I would say is a little taboo for me. That was for a couple of fights for Bodog in 2006. I had some great experiences with Bodog. They always traveled. They were partners with a Russian guy. There was one fight were they set up the cage on the beach in Costa Rica, and no one could buy a ticket for the fight. It was a totally different business model.
“The only people there were fellow fighters and cornermen,” he added. “They flew us all the way out to Costa Rica. We had to take a barge and then a private plane to go to this resort that no one could really get to. The reason that they did was to get total seclusion, because they wanted to make it a four-month TV show on ION, which they did. They wanted to keep the results really private. Social media was a lot different back then. I remember they set up the ring and it was all-day fights, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I don’t even know how many fights there were. There were around 40-some fights. Their miscalculation was setting up the ring on the beach. The beach was beautiful, but when that Costa Rican sun was coming down, it made the tarp covering the canvas so hot that it was unbearable. You couldn’t step on it barefoot.”
It was like fighting in a frying pan. The promoters had no idea what to do. They had no way of cooling down the tarp. The fighters, however, devised a way around it, or so they thought.
“The promoters really didn’t do anything; they kept running us out there,” Sonnen said. “Most of the fighters had agreements to not go in that hot area. If anyone got taken down there, they were going to get their back fried. Most of the fighters agreed -- but not all. Some of them used it as a weapon. They specifically dragged their opponents to that spot. That was a pretty brutal deal. I know the show must go on and all of that, but that was borderline dangerous. I was supposed to fight [at] two or three in the afternoon against Tim McKenzie. On fight day, I usually have the same ritual, which is I stay up as late as I can the night before and I sleep in as late as I can on fight day.”
It backfired this time. The promoters came to Sonnen’s room at 9:45 a.m. to tell him that he was fighting -- in 15 minutes.
“My warm-up was the quarter-mile run to the cage,” Sonnen said. “Tim was on his way when I was still getting my hands wrapped. The heat wasn’t there for me. I escaped it. I caught Tim in 11 seconds in a submission. When we fell, we fell awkwardly and Tim separated his ribs.”
Eddie to the Rescue
Sonnen recalls one situation that occurred on a cruise ship coming back from a Bodog Fight event in Russia. The round card girls were on the ship, which was filled with interesting characters.
“There was nothing dubious about these guys -- these guys were gangsters; the whole organization was run by gangsters,” Sonnen said. “One of the guys on the ship got a little hand-happy with one of the girls, and Eddie Alvarez wound up knocking the guy out. It turns out the guy was with the mobsters, and Eddie got put into a car and driven somewhere when the ship docked. They had Eddie dig a hole that they were going to bury him in, but before they killed him, they told him to never come back to Russia again. I can confirm 95-percent of that story to be true. I watched Eddie knock the guy out, and I know he had to go and dig the hole. Other than that, we all just let that one go. I had Eddie one time on my podcast, and I just let it go, but as weird as what I just told you [sounds], 95 percent of that is real, if not all of it. The whole thing was if they just grabbed Eddie in front of us, the fighters, they never would have gotten Eddie out of the door.
“We all would have defended him, but the night just went on and I never found out how they got Eddie to the car,” he added. “They may have even tricked him and told him they were going to give him a ride when we landed. I can’t fully remember everything about that, and some of it I heard second-hand. I was there when the guy was inappropriate and Eddie, being a gentleman, [was] not putting up with that. What happened after that I heard all second-hand, but it’s a story that never went away. That story is still out there to people. Maybe Eddie will tell us what really happened after he reads this.”
Best of the Best
Sonnen did not hesitate when asked to name his toughest opponent. He fought Yushin Okami at UFC 104 on Oct. 24, 2009 inside the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The fight went all three rounds, with Sonnen winning by a unanimous decision.
“Yushin hit really hard, and he was tough to wrestle and get down,” Sonnen said. “I remember coming out of that saying, ‘That that was really hard.’”
Okami was not the best fighter Sonnen has faced, however. That distinction belongs to two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Jon Jones, a man to whom he lost in lopsided fashion in 2013.
“Jon was the best fighter I ever faced,” Sonnen said. “He had his way with me so quickly. That’s not even a close discussion.”
Sonnen twice fought the great Anderson Silva, losing to the Brazilian at UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010 and again at UFC 148 two years later.
“Anderson pulled out all of the stops [in the rematch], and I respected that, because if I was able to, I would have done the same thing back to him,” he said. “I wasn’t bothered in the least by what he did. Anderson used to like to grease himself up with Vaseline pretty good. He got caught one time, but I don’t think he got caught this time.
“That’s before the fight even started,” Sonnen added. “I remember we were in some exchange and he reached and grabbed my shorts right by the waistband [and was warned by referee Yves Lavigne]. He pulled me in by my shorts and with his free hand he hit me with a straight. The fight ended weird, too. He threw a knee when I was down. There was a big question as to whether I was down or not. It was just a weird night.”
One of the stranger occurrences Sonnen has ever experienced came outside the cage following a matchup with Paulo Filho. The two fought for the World Extreme Cagefighting middleweight championship at WEC 31 on Dec. 12, 2007 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“Paulo Filho put me in a submission and the ref stopped the fight, and I remember one of the promoters came in afterward and said the camera did not pick up the tap,” Sonnen said. “The message there to me was to deny the tap happened and we do a rematch. In my post-fight speech, I said I didn’t tap and questioned why the referee stopped it. I did tap, but we were getting ready to do a rematch. I had an executive director of [the Nevada athletic commission] want to pull my license for making that claim and making his referee look bad. I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me. There were four different cameras there and an entire room full of people. Of course I tapped.’
“We were marketing for the next fight,” he added. “I remember thinking what business was that [of the state executive] to possibly effect my license status for a post-fight speech. I didn’t file an appeal. I thought the commissioner overstepped his boundaries. Sometimes you have to scratch your head.”
Sonnen beat Filho in their rematch at WEC 36 less than a year later. That fight was remembered for a bizarre ending, as well: Filho missed weight by four pounds and then appeared disinterested and disengaged in a unanimous decision loss. It was the last middleweight title bout in WEC history.
Sonnen remembers a time when he was too embarrassed to say he was a mixed martial artist. Some 20 years ago, his reply to those who asked what he did for a living went in two directions. He was “in sports” or he was “a wrestler.” The sport is now light years away from taboo perceptions.
“MMA used to be frowned on,” Sonnen said. “If I ever told someone I was in Bellator or UFC, they wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was talking about at one time. I would always have to say, ‘I’m in sports,’ rather than explain it. I would leave it at that. It’s a different time now. We’re on TV every week. Look at Bellator, getting a million views on cable TV. That’s a home run. They’re hitting home runs every single week. Credit people for coming to the sport and [credit] the faces everyone recognizes. People used to shy away from the MMA world. Now they look forward to it.
“In [terms of] ways to improve it -- and my theory here does not work, because I don’t really know how to apply it -- but there needs to be some kind of forfeiture clause,” he continued. “I come from wrestling background. If you say that you’re going to compete and you don’t step on the mat for any reason, that dispute is resolved and you lose; you just happen to lose by forfeit. It does drive me crazy when you’re in a division that wants to move forward, you have contender matches and title matches and all of a sudden, it gets delayed three or four or five months because somebody can’t show up. As far I’m concerned, they did show up -- as soon as they said they were going to do it. When they changed their mind to say they won’t do it for any reason, that dispute is resolved and they lose.
“Knowing the world of TV, it doesn’t work,” Sonnen added. “Something needs to be done. They have to do what they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do it. That’s what this entire thing is about. I don’t want to leave anything on the table. I believe in life, if you’re not willing to go too far, you’ll never go far enough. Most fighters’ careers end the same way -- face down, carried out and embarrassed; and that’s how I plan to finish.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.